WHAT SHOULD I SAY
Move Records MCD 580
First off, let me confess that this is a fusion with which I have little sympathy; that could be a background thing, an impatience with blandness or an absence of events. Elysian Fields bills itself as an electric viola da gamba band. Its six-member personnel take their impetus from Jenny Eriksson who plays the focal instrument. She is helped along her way by vocalist and violinist Susie Bishop, saxophonist Matt Keegan, pianist Matt McMahon, bass guitarist Siebe Pogson, and drummer Finn Ryan. I’m assuming that these artists operate principally in Sydney: the CD was made there and the groups with which these artists have links all seem to be working in the Harbour City.
So far, so fine. What do you get for your money? Put simply, about 52 minutes’ worth of music, which is heading towards the light-on. In daring style, the Elysians begin with settings of four Thomas Wyatt poems, with an extra track that serves as a prelude to the longest setting – that of Whoso list to hunt. I don’t know if ‘daring’ is right, though. The whole business reminds me of a time when I got into an argument with a folk-song singer and band leader (surname of West, I seem to recall). It was decades ago, in the days when my judgments had not been not tempered in the furnaces of experience. I reviewed this particular concert/recital at Monash University’s Blackwood Hall and questioned the validity of the arrangements, which struck me as sentimental and saccharine. The singer wrote back that his interpretations were as valid as anyone’s because we don’t know exactly how people sang folk-songs originally. That’s sort of true; what we do know, thanks to honest ethnomusicological research, is that they didn’t involve plush harmonizations or metrical/rhythmic and linear flattening-out in similar vein to Simon and Garfunkel’s handling of Scarborough Fair.
What has this to do with the Elysians’ Wyatt settings? It’s tangential but it raises a question about the suitability of McMahon’s music to the Tudor poet’s verses. For instance, does the music reflect, or even attempt to mirror, the dichotomy offered in the first track, Stand Whoso list? I can’t hear it; the song has a jazz-inflected prelude and its vocal line is limited in both vocal and emotional compasses, the eventual effect a bit of a dirge. The second Wyatt song, Whoso list to hunt, enjoys a discrete instrumental prelude which is one of the CDs more interesting tracks in its harmonic meanderings. But the verse setting follows the same slow pace and non-responsiveness to the poet’s words as in the first poem’s treatment. The following What should I say and They flee from me follow the same slow andante pace; all poems except the last are repeated with varying supports – sustained bass note, single instrument as counterweight, the ensemble following the singer all too closely with complementary chords or parallel melodic lines.
But the final effect is soporific, the songs of a piece in emotional output and ambience. composer McMahon apparently viewing the settings as a kind of uniform suite. Well, it’s one view but you might have expected something less four-square and, when you’re broken in, formulaic. Erriksson’s electric gamba sounds unremarkable in this group, without any bite or swoop, sometimes confusingly similar in timbre to Keegan’s ultra-cool sax. Quite a few of the poems’ linguistic peculiarities have disappeared and, while over 90% of the vocal line is of a one-note-per-syllable approach, the final line of the last poem acquires a completely gratuitous extra syllable. Bishop handles her work, both vocal and instrumental (not much of the latter), with a gentle grace.
Matts Norrefalk’s Southern Cross arranged by Pogson, begins as a piano solo before Keegan enters, eventually yielding primacy to Eriksson; then Pogson gets a guernsey. But, like Ricky Gervais, by this stage I don’t care; the piece is an amiable ramble and could be interchanged with much of the instrumental work that accompanied the Wyatt poems. It’s reminiscent of that 1959 film Jazz on a Summer’s Day: hazy, meandering, the ideal background to an unchallenging riesling. Pogson’s Dark Dreaming raises the temperature a good deal with some momentary off-centre rhythmic japes and an extended duet for sax and gamba, but it eventually goes the way of all flesh on the disc and settles into a post-MJQ rut that could have been heard in any 1960s Melbourne jazz club.
With Elysium, settings of poems by Philip Pogson (Eriksson’s husband), composed by Keegan, the pace picks up considerably. Here again, the interest lies somewhere else than in finding a sustaining insight into the text which gets the same syllable-by-syllable treatment and moves into several patches where the vocal line simply wanders from one pitch to its adjacent companions. But the various segments (three songs, one instrumental with a few vocalised vowels) have a vivacity that has been lacking so far. It’s not that the rhythm complexes get more tangled or that the instrumental combinations hold interest (apart from a gamba/sax duet that came out of nowhere). No: you sense that the performers are being stressed, exercised; Bishop hits her top notes and, in this context, they come close to thrilling.
Finally, the CD ends with a piano/gamba duet, At Carna, by McMahon in which Eriksson is under the spotlight for the most sustained stretch on the CD. Carna refers, I believe, to the district of that name in Connemara, County Galway and the music consists of a set of variations/re-statements of a folk-like tune holding some charm and polish. It makes a pleasant conclusion to this series of musical excursions, a kind of jazz-classical fusion with a pretty string accent on the former. It’s taken me months to get through the CD without becoming exasperated, mainly at the lack of grip; very little here is technically interesting and the emotional language strikes this jaded listener as too simple to take seriously. Definitely one for those who like their music to have a benign, holiday atmosphere, not any pretensions towards intellectual engagement.